Kuala Lumpur is more than a capital city: it is a monument to ingenuity. From humble beginnings as a tin-mining shanty, it has evolved into a culturally diverse 21st-century metropolis. Some come for the colonial, Malay, Indian and Chinese history, others for the space-age malls and the buzz of future Asia.

Merdeka Square, where Malaysian independence from British rule was declared in 1957, is ringed by colonial heritage buildings, most notable of which are St Mary's Cathedral, the National History Museum (29 Jln Raja; 9am-6pm; 20p) and the Royal Selangor Club, a members-only social club.

The most striking religious monument in KL, the Sri Maha Mariamman Temple was founded by Indian migrant workers in 1873. The temple is crowned by a gopuram (flower-like tower). Non-Hindus are welcome, but leave your shoes at the entrance (Jln Tun HS Lee; 6am-8.30pm).

The Suria KLCC mall is a cathedral to consumerism. Come, if only to see how fast KL has developed in the 50 years since independence. The surrounding park has great views of the Petronas Towers (crn Jln Ampang & Jln P Ramlee; 10am-10pm).

The Islamic Arts Museum showcases Malaysia's fascinating Islamic history and houses one of the best Islamic art collections in the world. The recreated Ottoman room is a highlight (+60 3 2274 2020; Jln Lembah Perdana; 10am-6pm; £2.50).

Covering 92 hectares, the Lake Gardens were created during the colonial era as an urban retreat for the British administration. Head to the Bird Park, where 160 species of (mostly) Asian birds fly beneath an enormous canopy (+60 3 2272 1010; Jln Cenderawasih; 9am-7pm; £6).

At sunset the plastic tables at the hawkers court Pudu Market fill with locals, who cast curious glances at the few foreigners who venture to eat here. The food stalls serve noodles, wonton soups and grilled seafood (Jln Pasar Baru; 24 hours; mains 60p-£3). An update to the traditional hawker stalls run by Indian Muslims, mamak restaurants have taken KL by storm.

Nasi Kandar Pelita is probably the flashiest and serves magnificent hariyali tikka - spiced chicken with mint, cooked in the tandoor (cnr Jln Telawi & Jln Telawi 5; 24 hours; mains £3).

In the guildhall of the Selangor & Federal Territory Laundry Association, Old China Café has the charm of old KL. Try Nonya dishes (cooking that uses Chinese ingredients with Malay spices), such as beef curry with coconut (+60 3 2072 5915; 11 Jln Balai Polis; lunch and dinner; mains £4-£12).

On the rooftop of the Pacific Regency Hotel, Luna tops the bill for a drink with a view. The bar coils around a pool, and has giant, soft furnishings and chill-out booths (+60 3 2332 7777; Level 34, Menara PanGlobal, Jln Punchak; 5pm-1am; cover £10.50 Fri-Sat).

Bijan is one of KL's best Malay restaurants, offering traditional dishes in a dining room that spills out into a tropical garden. Try the seabass in chilli and tamarind (+60 3 2031 3575; 3 Jln Ceylon; lunch and dinner Mon-Sat, dinner Sun; mains £4-£15).

Tune Hotel takes the Ryanair principle and applies it to hotel rooms. The sleek, simple, ultra-minimalist rooms are only bookable online. The basic rate gives you the room - air-con, toiletries and other perks are optional extras (316 Jln TAR; £10-£20).

Number Eight Guesthouse is spread over two traditional shophouses. Most notable are the personal touches: tea-lit tables on the patio, eccentric ornaments in the rooms and old black and white photos on brightly coloured walls (+60 3 2144 2050; 8-10 Tingkat Tong Shin; £27 for en suite, less without).

Maya Hotel is a stylish option. Rooms sport floor-to-ceiling windows with panoramic city views, glass-walled bathrooms and espresso machines (+60 3 2711 8866; 138 Jln Ampang; from £88 at weekends, mid-week is more expensive).

For a 007-style Asian experience, the chocolate and caramel rooms at the Shangri-La Hotel are a good place to start. Opulence verging on decadence is key here, from gold-trimmed lifts to the vast marble-clad lobby and crafted tropical garden (+60 3 2032 2388; 11 Jln Sultan Ismail; from £100).

Located in the heart of the Lake Gardens, Carcosa Seri Negara is a slice of KL history - it was once the residence of British government representative Sir Frank Swettenham. Scents of jasmine waft around the corridors and rooms retain their English-heritage style (+60 3 2295 0888; Taman Tasik Perdana; suite from £150).

How to go
The best deals are through Middle Eastern carriers such as Qatar Airways and Emirates (from £500 from London). Reach KL Sentral station via the KLIA Ekspres train (£7).

Find your way
The monorail and Kelana Jaya/ Terminal Putra line of the LRT reach most points of interest, plus avoid the traffic jams that plague the city roads. The Touch & Go stored value card can be used for both (available at LRT stations for a £2 deposit).

The article 'Mini guide to Kuala Lumpur' was published in partnership with Lonely Planet Magazine.